Ice Network

Skaters jaunt to Japan for world championships

Tickets sell like crazy for Asada's last event; USA covets podium spots
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U.S. champion Gracie Gold, who finished fourth at the Olympics, gets a few tips from coach Frank Carroll during practice. -Klaus-Reinhold Kany

Three years ago, the International Skating Union (ISU) planned to hold the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships in Tokyo, but on March 11, 2011 -- just a bit more than a week before the event -- an earthquake and tsunami hit about 200 miles northeast of Tokyo, devastating the country. Some Japanese call this their country's "3/11," an allusion to the 9/11 attacks on the USA. After long consideration, the ISU moved the world championships to Moscow and promised Japan it would get the event at a later date.

This promise is being fulfilled now.

Over the past three years, the country as a whole has recovered, but the tsunami and resulting atomic catastrophe at Fukushima are still on every citizen's mind. Japanese culture is reserved and private; most of the population is ashamed to talk of the Fukushima disaster. How could such a disaster happen in such a technically advanced country? In a country whose goal is perfection, where nearly everything -- food, water, heat -- is available at the touch of a button?

Saitama Super Arena, site of the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships this week, is even larger than the arena in Tokyo where the event was planned in 2011. Saitama is one of Tokyo's northern suburbs, a bit more than a half hour by train or bus from downtown Tokyo, where the hotel of the skaters and officials is located. Three months ago, the Japanese championships were held in the same rink and were a great success. Many skaters and officials were amused by the five tiny Zamboni machines which cleaned the ice.

Nearly every one of the Saitama Super Arena's 18,000 seats will be filled this week when Mao Asada takes the ice for what are likely her final competitive performances. Ticket sales in Tokyo are brisk, as Japanese fans have lined up for a loving last look at their skating heroine, whose 10-year international career includes the 2010 Olympic silver medal, six Japanese titles and four world medals, two of them gold.

The 23-year-old from Nagoya fell on her trademark triple Axel and missed her combination to place a devastating 16th in the short program at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, but she landed the Axel and recorded a career-best score in her free skate to place sixth overall. In Tokyo, she will end her career with the jump that first brought her fame, planning triple Axels in both of her programs.

With longtime Korean rival Yu-Na Kim and newly crowned Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova on the sidelines, Asada's biggest challenge may come from Italy's Carolina Kostner, the five-time European champion who won bronze in Sochi, and Julia Lipinitskaia, who skated brilliantly to lead Russia to gold in the Olympic team event before placing fifth in the individual contest. Asada's two teammates, Akiko Suzuki and Kanako Murakami -- both of whom have said they will retire after worlds -- cannot be counted out.

The U.S. is poised to have three ladies in the top 10 for the first time since 2006. U.S. champion Gracie Gold, a strong fourth in Sochi, and two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, who placed seventh, have realistic medal chances. Polina Edmunds, the 15-year-old U.S. silver medalist, proved her mettle with two solid skates in Sochi and could be a dark horse for the world podium.

Hanyu looks strong for first world title

Sotnikova and Kim are not alone in skipping the event. Seven of the 12 individual medal winners in Sochi will not compete in Saitama.

Japan's Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu is the favorite, especially with Canada's reigning three-time world champion Patrick Chan, the silver medalist in Sochi, taking a break from competition. Olympic bronze medalist Denis Ten, healing from foot and ankle injuries, is also skipping worlds. Daisuke Takahashi, still recovering from a knee injury, announced his retirement after a sixth-place finish in Sochi.

Hanyu's strongest challenges will come from his training partner in Toronto, two-time Spanish European champion Javier Fernández, and his Japanese teammates, Tatsuki Machida (fifth in Sochi) and Takahito Kozuka. If three-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott and 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron skate clean programs, they are also medal contenders.

The dark horse in the men's event could be Russian champion Maxim Kovtun, who may be anxious to prove himself after being left off of the Olympic team in favor of Evgeni Plushenko.

New world order in ice dance

With Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White busy competing against each other on ABC's Dancing with the Stars and silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir opting out as well, the ice dance title is up for grabs.

"It's going to be a free-for-all," said Kaitlyn Weaver, who placed seventh in Sochi with partner Andrew Poje, on a media call last week. "We pride ourselves on being the underdogs. We've worked so hard the past couple of weeks. ... We'll try to stake our claim for Canada."

Weaver and Poje are targeting their short dance, which lost a few levels in Sochi, for improvement.

"We left a good five points on the table [in Sochi], which would have made a huge difference," Weaver said. "We've drilled the technical elements, and in the free dance, too. There are always more Level 4's to be had."

The favorites for the podium are Russian Olympic bronze medalists Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov and their teammates, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev, who placed fifth in Sochi. The two teams have avoided most shows and trained quietly at home in Moscow since the Olympics ended.

Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat had planned to retire after their fourth-place showing in Sochi, but while on tour in Switzerland, Finland and Sweden, they learned that the two top dance teams were skipping Japan and changed their minds. They practiced their programs every day and returned to Michigan after the tour to work with coach Igor Shpilband for a week.

Other medal contenders include Italian European champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte. U.S. silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, now the No. 1 U.S. dance team, will likely better their eighth-place finish in Sochi. Together with Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, and Alexandra Aldridge and Daniel Eaton, they will also seek to maintain three U.S. ice dance spots for the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships.

Last stand for Savchenko, Szolkowy

With Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov absent, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are favored to win their fifth world title in Saitama.

Bitterly disappointed with their bronze-medal finish in Sochi, the Germans are determined to end their brilliant 10-year career on a high note and continued daily run-throughs of their competitive programs during a recent Art on Ice tour. Their biggest competition will come from Russians Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, who skated two show-stealing programs in Sochi to win a surprise silver medal.

Canadaian defending world bronze medalists Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, who seek to improve on their seventh-place finish in Sochi, have made adjustments to their Alice in Wonderland free skate.

"We shifted a couple of elements and re-arranged a section of the program," Duhamel said on a media teleconference last week. "We moved the [side-by-side] triple Salchow-double toe combinations into the first half and turned them into triple Salchow-double toe-double toe sequences.

"The whole program breathes easier," she continued. "It creates an ease to the program that was missing before."

Canadian silver medalists Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch skated two strong programs to place fifth in Sochi and are strong candidates for their first world medal.

After a 20-year career, Chinese two-time world champions Qing Pang and Jian Tong have hung up their competitive skates. Two-time world junior champions Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, best known for their daring quad twists and throws, will take their place in Saitama, along with another powerhouse team, Cheng Peng and Hao Zhang, who placed eighth in Sochi.

Two-time U.S. pairs champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, a solid ninth in Sochi, look strong to improve on their 13th-place world debut last season. The Boston-based duo hopes to land a throw quadruple Salchow in their free skate.

Caydee Denney's ankle injury has taken her and partner John Coughlin out of the mix, but U.S. silver medalists Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay, who skated clean programs at both the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and in Sochi, will make their worlds debut after placing 12th in Sochi.

Saitama sushi: France qualified two men for Saitama, but former European champion Florent Amodio -- who placed a tearful 18th in Sochi -- elected to withdraw, saying, "After the disappointment at the Olympics, I have to gain confidence first. At the moment, I am not ready. ... This is a season to forget." With 2007 world champion Brian Joubert's retirement, only Chafik Bessighier -- who gained his qualifying scores just this month -- was sent to Saitama. ... Romanian Zoltan Kelemen and Korean Jin Seo Kim collided in practice Monday, and Kelemen's elbow accidently struck Kim in the stomach. Kim was transported to a hospital but later returned, saying he was feeling better and would compete.